Fact-checking an immigration meme that's been circulating for more than a decade

A larger counter-protest in Laguna Beach, Calif., faces off against a smaller group demonstrating against illegal immigration on Aug. 20, 2017. (AP/Christopher Weber)
A larger counter-protest in Laguna Beach, Calif., faces off against a smaller group demonstrating against illegal immigration on Aug. 20, 2017. (AP/Christopher Weber)

A viral image on social media -- one that’s critical of illegal immigration -- has been circulating for years. The list of claims first circulated in the form of a chain email in 2006, according to Snopes.com. Six years later, we checked several of the claims ourselves.

With immigration in the headlines today, these claims are popular again. So we’ll take a fresh look at them here.

All told, the list is heavy with claims that are unsupported, misleading, or simply wrong. (We’re skipping the ninth item -- "U.S. Taxpayers are Footing the Bill for ALL" -- because it is too vague to fact-check.)

"43% of all FOOD Stamps are Given to Illegals"

This is a bogus number that doesn’t check out mathematically; we rated it Pants on Fire back in 2012. Here, we’ll look at the most recent data available from March 2018.

That month, about 40 million people participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program.

If 43 percent of that assistance went to immigrants in the country illegally, that would mean that 17.2 million of them benefitted from the program. But there aren’t 17.2 million immigrants here illegally — the most widely trusted estimates have it close to 11 million. The claim also ignores legal restrictions barring immigrants in the country illegally from receiving most federal benefits.

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"43% of all FOOD Stamps are Given to Illegals"
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Tuesday, July 3, 2018
"95% of warrants issued for Murder in Los Angeles are for illegals"

As the fact-checking website Snopes first noted, this figure also appears, without additional sourcing, in 2005 testimony by Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute. "In Los Angeles, 95 percent of all outstanding warrants for homicide (which total 1,200 to 1,500) target illegal aliens," she wrote in her testimony. "Up to two-thirds of all fugitive felony warrants (17,000) are for illegal aliens."

When we contacted Mac Donald for this article, she said, "This information was given to me by a member of the (Los Angeles Police Department), who was making a rough estimate. It refers to fugitive warrants; homicide suspects who were in the country illegally often return to their home countries when they are sought on a warrant."

Even if this number was accurate at the time -- and it was provided anonymously rather than being an official statistic -- it is a "rough estimate" that is about a decade and a half old. Those qualifications do not appear in the meme circulating today.

In addition, Snopes has noted that illegal aliens might be disproportionately represented in this category because they are more likely to flee the jurisdiction before their cases are adjudicated, and not necessarily because they commit a far greater share of the homicides in Los Angeles.

"Less than 2% of illegals are picking crops but 41% are on Welfare"

There’s data that shows a higher percentage of immigrants in the country illegally working farming jobs, but the welfare percentage isn’t as clear-cut. (We rated this Mostly False in 2012.)

About 4 percent of unauthorized immigrant workers held farming jobs in 2014, Pew Research Center reported in November 2016. It didn’t break down the data to crop picking.

A welfare percentage is more nuanced and difficult to verify. We’ve found research showing that about 50 percent of households headed by an immigrant (living here legally or illegally) benefit from government assistance programs. In many of those households, it’s a U.S.-born child who is eligible for a program.

We also found basis for the 41 percent claim in a 2007 report — but most of the welfare cited went to U.S. citizens who lived in households led by immigrants in the country illegally, and very little of it was in cash form, which is what many consider "welfare."

As we’ve mentioned before, individuals living in the country illegally are generally not eligible for federal public benefits.

"More than 66% of ALL births in California are to illegals on Medi-Cal"

Medi-Cal is the name of California’s Medicaid program, which covers low-income residents of the state, including, to a certain extent, undocumented immigrants.

The most recent complete data we found was from 2011. That year, the state had 502,120 total births. According to Medi-Cal, 50.4 percent of the state’s births that year were paid for by Medi-Cal. That works out to 253,068 total births on Medi-Cal.

Medi-Cal also reported that 29 percent of Medi-Cal mothers in 2011 were undocumented. So that year, 73,390 undocumented mothers gave birth on Medi-Cal.

As a percentage of all births in the state, that works out to 15 percent -- not 66 percent, as the meme says.

After we initially published this article, a spokeswoman for California's Department of Health Care Services provided statistics for 2012 and 2013 as well. As it turns out, the percentage declined in those years -- to 13.4 percent in 2012 and 12.6 percent in 2013.

We rated this statement False.

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"More than 66% of ALL births in California are to illegals on Medi-Cal."
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"60% of all HUD-occupied properties in the U.S. are illegals"

This is another instance where the numbers just don’t add up to support the claim. (In 2012, we rated it Pants on Fire.)

Using updated data, there were about 9.7 million people in subsidized housing in 2017, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

So 60 percent of the 9.7 million would mean that about 5.8 million of those housing-subsidized residents were people here illegally, which experts have told us "seems implausible" and "nonsensical."

A 2015 report by the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors low levels of immigration, estimated that in 2012, 4 percent of households headed by immigrants in the country illegally used housing programs. "While households headed by illegal immigrants make some use of housing and cash programs, their use is lower than that of households headed by the native-born for these programs," the study said.

"39% of All California Students are illegals"

According to estimates by Enrico A. Marcelli of San Diego State University and Manuel Pastor of the University of Southern California, only about 3 percent of the child population in California -- defined as those under 18 -- were undocumented immigrants in the period 2008 to 2012.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center found that 12.3 percent of K-12 students in California in 2014 had an unauthorized immigrant parent. This is a broader category -- encompassing parents rather than just students -- but even this doesn’t come close to the meme’s 39 percent figure.

We rated the statement False.

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"39% of All California Students are illegals."
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"75% of Los Angeles Most Wanted Criminals are illegals"

This assertion echoes the earlier one that was traceable to Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute, but she never cited this figure in her 2005 testimony. We were unable to find supporting evidence for it.

We filed a public records request with the Los Angeles Police Department and will update this article if we hear back.

"50% of all gang members are illegals"

This is, at best, an assumption, because there’s no official data to back it up. Neither the FBI or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has officially estimated the percentage of gang members who are in the United States illegally.

A 2011 FBI assessment said there were 1.4 million active street, prison, and outlaw motorcycle gang members affiliated with more than 33,000 gangs in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. It’s unclear how many of the 1.4 million are here illegally.

We have also specifically asked government officials if they have hard numbers for MS-13 gang members who are in the United States illegally, since President Donald Trump repeatedly mentions this gang in regard to immigration, often making misleading and exaggerated claims.

The FBI estimates there are about 10,000 MS-13 gang members in the United States. But ICE does not have immigration data on the FBI’s MS-13 estimates, ICE spokesman Matthew Bourke said. It’s worth noting that not all MS-13 gang members are immigrants or in the United States illegally. Some are U.S. citizens who can’t be deported.

In a 2017 six-week operation targeting all gang members, ICE arrested 1,378 individuals; 933 were U.S. citizens and 445 were foreign nationals. ICE didn’t have a breakdown of the foreign nationals’ immigration status.

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"50% of all gang members are illegals"
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UPDATE, July 5, 7:00 p.m.: This article has been updated with the most recent figures provided by California's Department of Health Care Services.

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